A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: The DELTA QUEEN hated Volkswagens or the story of a better story that makes a legend

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. The is a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

When does fact become a legend? It takes time and telling and retelling until the story twists and bends and become something different by taking along a piece of each teller’s imprint.

An eye-witness, deckhand Ed Duemler, verified the facts of the Vic-and-the-VW matter as different than what I am about to tell, but when I repeated Captain Ernest E. Wagner’s version, he replied, “A much better story… let’s make that the legend.”

Captain Wagner and Don Sanders standing next to that ill-fated Volkswagen “bug” on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN. 

According to Cap’n Wagner, the DELTA QUEEN, upbound on the turbulent Lower Mississippi River, just above the Memphis bridges, was close to landing at the foot of Beale Street. Cap was making last-minute checks of the bow, but as he turned to go up top for the arrival, he noticed the steamboat’s Volkswagen Beetle was parked with the front pointed outboard away from the landing. He asked Vic, a young deckhand with long blond hair who was close by if he could turn the car around so it could be more easily driven ashore across the narrow landing stage after the QUEEN landed.

“Sure,” Vic said although he had not the faintest clue about how to drive a stick-shift automobile.

Assured, Wagner went up top to the pilothouse and prepared for the landing at the same time Vic was getting into the car with his girlfriend, a housekeeper on the boat. Vic studied the controls. He knew, by watching others, that he had to put the clutch in – so he shoved it to the floor with his foot. With a turning of the key, the engine started. One small detail, though, Vic did not understand was, “easing out on the clutch.” Instead, he quickly removed his foot, popping the clutch. Like a nag out of a starting gate, the car leaped ahead, tore through the fence, and flew into the river!

Luckily the VW floated.

The DELTA QUEEN shoving upstream against the swift current under the notorious Memphis Bridges. 

Up in the pilothouse, Cap answered a call on the marine radio from the downstream boat store:

Boat Store: “Say, DELTA QUEEN… you carry a Volkswagen on that boat?”

Captain Wagner: “Yes, we sure do… it’s down on the bow.”

Boat Store: “No it ain’t… it’s coming through the bridges, now, with two hippies a’ sitting on the roof.”

The DELTA QUEEN was indeed lousy luck for Volkswagens. Besides the one Vic and his bride-to-be cruised the Memphis harbor aboard, at least three other VWs met an untimely fate because of the QUEEN:

* At Cincinnati – A most delightful-looking young woman parked her bug on the sloped Cincinnati landing one day in the early ’70’s, and then walked uptown to work. Around noon, as I was standing gate watch, an unusual sight directed my attention toward the landing. The cutie’s VW had, somehow, broken free and was careening down the steep grade. Into the Ohio River, it splashed, floated toward the DELTA QUEEN, smashed into the hull, and sank stern-first. The authorities eventually arrived with a wrecker and pulled the car back onto the landing where they left it.

That evening, when the lovely lass came back for her car, she failed to notice that her vehicle now parked in the opposite direction she had left it, had the drivers-side door on the downhill slope of the Public Landing. So as soon as the dolly inserted her key into the lock and turned it, the door flew open with the force of several hundred gallons of Ohio River water behind it, and the thunderstruck maiden was awash in a miniature, but potent, tsunami wave.

Cars Parked on Cinti Public Landing – A most delightful-looking young woman parked her bug on the sloped Cincinnati landing…

* At Marietta, Ohio – Soon after landing the DELTA QUEEN at the Marietta city front, Durf, a deckhand, rushed breathlessly, into the pilothouse and informed me that I had just “cut a Volkswagen in half.” Sure enough, a VW, recently stolen by some local boys looking for some fun joyriding about town, committed the bug to the murky depths of the Ohio River when their play was over where it patiently waited until I bisected it with the pointy bow of the steamboat.

* On Kentucky Lake – There is a bridge on the lake where the US 79 Highway sweeps down from the east on a long grade and crosses over the Tennessee River on the Austin Peay Memorial Highway. As the DELTA QUEEN approached the bridge, I could see cars slowing down to a creep to watch the beautiful steamboat lined up to pass beneath the channel span. Just before we were close to the bridge, I spied a Volkswagen stop right above where we would be ducking beneath in a few minutes more.

Then, to my horror, I noticed a huge semi tractor-trailer flying down the bridge in the same lane toward where the VW was parked. The way the rig was speeding without slowing down, I knew that the driver was also watching the QUEEN and not the road in front of him. A collision was imminent, and all I could imagine was that in a few more seconds, a Volkswagen would be airborne and hurtling down upon the top of the DELTA QUEEN. Immediately, I rushed into the pilothouse and warned the pilot of impending disaster as the terrible sound of brakes and metal-upon-metal came from atop the steel and concrete superstructure above us as the QUEEN slid beneath where people were surely dying just several feet overhead.

Thankfully for us, the VW was not vaulted over the bridge and onto the DELTA QUEEN. As hard as I tried to find out, I never heard what happened to the hapless folks aboard the ill-fated bug.

The DELTA QUEEN landed at the Marietta city front.

Durf, a deckhand, rushed breathlessly, into the pilothouse and informed me that I had just “cut a Volkswagen in half.”

There is a bridge on the lake where the US 79 Highway sweeps down from the east on a long grade and crosses over the Tennessee River on the Austin Peay Memorial Highway. As the DELTA QUEEN approached the bridge, I could see cars slowing down to a creep to watch the beautiful steamboat lined up to pass beneath the channel span.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

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One Comment

  1. Connie Bays says:

    Wow! I would say that the Delta Queen and “bugs” just don’t jive! What entertaining stories! As usual, I feel like I’m standing there watching it all!

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